January 28, 2019

Open Thread 18

Once again, it is time for our regular open thread. You're allowed to talk about whatever you wish.

The Naval Institute recently published a very interesting article on the Fat Leonard scandal. While it focuses on the impact on promotion and reassignment of how long things have dragged on, it also gives a good overview of the scandal as a whole.

Since last time, I've overhauled the posts on Pre-Dreadnoughts, Basics of Naval Strategy, the second part of Russian Battleships, So You Want to Build a Battleship - Strategic Background, and the last two installments of Why the Carriers Are Not Doomed.


  1. January 28, 2019Johan Larson said...

    Let's try a hypothetical. Today, an uninhabited island the size of Ireland appears in the South Pacific about halfway between New Zealand and Peru. One moment the space was empty ocean, the next the island was there. Records are consistent that there was no island there before.

    When is the island discovered, by whom, and what happens to it?

  2. January 28, 2019bean said...

    Weather satellites. They basically image the whole planet at the necessary resolution every few minutes. I'm pretty sure that when they detect something really weird in that part of the ocean, alarms will sound at NOAA.

    After that, the NOAA commissioned corps will sortie forth to analyze the island. They might try to claim it, actually. But who knows.

    Seriously, I have no idea who ends up with the island. My first guess would be that it would end up under international jurisdiction like Antarctica. What sort of life is on this island?

  3. January 28, 2019Carey Underwood said...

    Given that it wasn't there before, I'd guess that the sort of life there is "alien".

  4. January 28, 2019johan.g.larson@gmail.com said...

    Dinosaurs, of course!

  5. January 28, 2019redRover said...

    Somewhat related to the battleship thread, but also more generally applicable:

    How much does weather impact offensive naval operations currently? I imagine that you would basically need to be in the middle of a hurricane before you exceed the physical limitations of the various weapons systems, but at what point does extra rain and roll/pitch hurt surface based sensors or prevent aviation operations? What are the sea state limitations for effective operations, and how does the crew deal with extreme weather?

  6. January 28, 2019bean said...

    I'm actually doing initial research for a post on this, but the short answer is "more than you'd expect". It depends heavily on the system, and this is actually an area where there's been a lot of work done since WWII. VLS, for instance, has higher motion limits than previous launchers.

  7. February 01, 2019Inky said...

    It had taken some time to figure out, but now I can't unsee it.
    Military ships don't carry lifeboats. Like, not even one. The best you can hope for is inflatable rafts. And then, when you come to the ships of the size of a carrier...
    What is the procedure for the crew to save itself if the ship will start to sink?

  8. February 01, 2019redRover said...


    I believe that's fairly standard for most large ships these days, including cruise ships. Carrying enough hard lifeboats, plus whaleboats and so on would be prohibitive, so they just trust in life rafts and hope for the best.


    Mostly though the idea seems to be that any sort of sinking would either be so quick and so traumatic that nobody survives (nuclear torpedo?) or the ship would remain on the surface long enough that other vessels in the operating group could come along side and take off the survivors, as was the case with a number of ships eventually sunk or written off in WWII.

  9. February 01, 2019bean said...

    They carry lots of liferafts. They're they grey, pill-shaped objects you can see in photos. I don't have a lot of information on them, for some reason. But there is an abandon ship bill, and they do run drills. A deeper dive into this is on my list for some point in the future.

    Nobody uses nuclear torpedoes any more, so you aren't going to see mass casualties from that. I think the logic is probably that warships are pretty tough, and have decent damage control capability. And they usually operate in groups, which makes it easier to get help.

  10. February 01, 2019Jade Nekotenshi said...

    Those liferafts are surprisingly roomy inside, for being inflatable boats. And there are a metric butt-ton of them - even a DDG or CG carries way more than its crew actually needs. I think the ratio is probably less favorable on a CV or LHD, but I'd have to count 'em to be sure. Either way, the idea is that nobody's going to have to rely on those for very long, since between EPIRBs, flares, dye markers and radio calls before sinking, the location of the event should be pretty well known, and almost every ship in the force has aircraft of some kind to use to at least locate survivors, if not rescue them.

  11. February 02, 2019bean said...

    A couple of things re abandoning ship: 1. Here is a WWII USN manual on abandoning ship. 2. The standard USN life rafts were one of the things that gave the most trouble during the reactivation of the Iowas. They kept getting set off by the muzzle blast.

  12. February 02, 2019ryan8518 said...

    So I was reading a BBC article on a commercial small sat intelligence firm, and one of the things stood out to me was that they were able to pick up signs of underway replenishment efforts, in the context of two ships passing cargo at see to bust sanction rules, and at the same time be able to tell how full ships were and make educated guesses about whats on them. That brings a couple of lines questions to mind, because while the system doesn’t appear to provide real time/precise enough data for targeting purposes, it sure seems like a good way for a budget navy (say SSCistan) to set up naval intelligence, scouting, and target acquisition capabilities. Also, with a reasonable dedicated small sat launcher program something that could be established independently on a reasonable budget, to the point where you could establish a regional surveillance network that did have hourly or better type updates with sufficient resolution to catch anything bigger than a rubber boat, thought I think this has to a complementary rather than a replacement system for things like MPA.

    More interestingly, since basically all of the current commercial operators of these systems come under the long arm of ITAR right now, what is the line which the various three letter agencies draw about what constitutes commercial & national security imagery? Presumably we won’t be seeing a repeat of fitbit publishing the geography of practically every US military base, but do you think we’ll get to see weaponized evidence of Russian sub un-reps in politically awkward places, or bulletins tracking the Chinese “fishing” fleets off some island in the South Pacific in the near term? How tight is the oversight on what data is published? I wonder how much coaching these companies get when someone in the USG wants something found publicly. I’m frankly a little surprised with how much data they put out on oil and other commercial shipping operations and wonder what nefarious ways that level of information being semi-public could be put to use.

    Finally, what happens when we start to get really good commercial multi-spectral databases that can be cross referenced for this kind of thing? At that point you start going from educated guesses about what cargo is being carried to getting pretty good ideas of which VLS cells are filled with what, plus all weather tracking, fuel burn rates from chemical emissions of the power plant, and all kinds of interesting imaging tricks. Given the significant capability growth we’ve seen in the US military over the last decade or so as they’ve brought this sort of sensor network online, does this tech change the balance in favor or larger powers, better able to deploy the systems independently, or small powers better able to target limited resources on better intelligence?

  13. February 02, 2019bean said...

    Very interesting. I knew about PlanetLabs, but I didn’t realize they were doing that sort of maritime surveillance.

    At the same time, there are a couple of limitations that they don’t mention. First, a 3U smallsat doesn’t have the resolution to do really precise surveillance. When you have 3-5m resolution, you aren’t really tracking rubber boats, and you don’t have the resolution to defeat deliberate attempts to play with your data, either. For every frigate, we buy a big yacht/small freighter/whatever that looks the same from overhead, and is really cheap to run. Getting better tracking means that you’re going to need a much larger and more expensive system.

    Second, a lot of their work depends on specific features that don’t generalize to military work. Take the knowledge of how heavily loaded a tanker is. While using the shadow is very clever, it also depends on the fact that tankers are designed to carry things, so the variation in draft (and thus height) between a loaded and light tanker is huge. (For context, the Henry J Kaiser class oilers have a displacement of 9,500 tons empty and 42,000 tons full.) This is not true of warships, which have both smaller variations in draft and several possible drivers for those changes (missiles, fuel, helicopters, other supplies). Likewise the guesses on what a ship is carrying. If a tanker pulls up at the diesel terminal, it’s probably getting diesel. But the USN doesn’t publish what the contents of its bunkers are at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach.

    I have no idea what the state of ITAR limitations are. There may or may not be a resolution threshold for that, but if it is, it’s way less than 1m. What makes Planet Labs so revolutionary is that they’re imaging the whole globe every day, which opens up all sorts of interesting options for looking at changes. But the resolution isn’t very good.

    There are a couple of other major problems with trying to build a dedicated constellation of this kind for military purposes. The big one is obviously weather, which I would presume is why you correctly identified that this wouldn’t be an MPA substitute. But it’s also fairly expensive for what you get if you want a strictly regional system. I’m not feeling like doing the math right now, but the basic problem is that I’d estimate you’d need something like the 150 satellites that Planet Labs currently has up to get good coverage in near real-time. Less if you’re near the equator, but even if you can eliminate a bunch of satellites that don’t have good coverage patterns, you still need to do better than once a day. And you get a bunch of general world surveillance for free. Probably better to just buy data from Planet Labs and process it yourself.

    I’m not sure we’re going to see multi-spectral databases get quite that good at the sort of refresh rates we need for maritime surveillance. One of the reasons Planet Labs can put up enough satellites is that they’re tiny. Their standard is a 3U cubesat, a box 10 cm x 10 cm x 30 cm. You can do a surprising amount with that (I was heavily involved in a cubesat project while in college) but to get the sort of multi-spectral/hyperspectral data you’re talking about is going to mean a much larger sensor, which is more expensive to build and more expensive to launch.

    I haven’t seen much about minor power use of cubesats, but it might be worth looking into.

  14. February 04, 2019bean said...

    I just finished the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam, and it was good. Dndnrsn described it to me as “almost pathologically even-handed”, which is very apt. There are areas I wish they’d given more emphasis towards, but I don’t think they got anything really wrong. IMO, it did understate the damage that McNamara’s and Johnson’s attempts to manage the war did, and the only pilot they interviewed was Merrill McPeak, who, besides his crimes against fashion, destroyed SAC, and did more damage to the USAF than anyone except McNamara himself. The Navy as a whole was given short shift. The riverine war was basically only mentioned in the context of John Kerry, and while there was a fair bit of carrier footage while discussing Rolling Thunder, there was basically no other mention of their work doing interdiction and supporting the war ashore.

    Overall, though, you should go watch it. It's on Netflix in the US.

  15. February 08, 2019Johan Larson said...

    The thing that struck me about the Burns series was the ineptitude of the South Vietnamese leadership and the pervasive corruption within their political system. Having a reasonably honest and effective partner in power would have made a huge difference to the US war effort.

    I expect the US could have put in power virtually anyone. Who would have been the best bet?

    The other thing that impressed me was the North Vietnamese resilience and willingness to continue the war. They suffered at least two major defeats, the Tet Offensive and the Easter Offensive, and had 600,000 dead. Attrition was the wrong strategy for the US, sure. But the sheer scale of it would have deterred most any other enemy.

  16. February 08, 2019bean said...

    You know, I'm really not sure that they were as inept as the series made them out to be. The ARVN was in battle for a decade and more, and fought well surprisingly often. If things were really that bad, they wouldn't have lasted nearly as long, even with us propping them up.

    I expect the US could have put in power virtually anyone. Who would have been the best bet?

    The problem is legitimacy. If we'd put an even more obvious puppet in power, it might not have helped.

    And yes, the extent of suffering the North Vietnamese were willing to bear to win is pretty staggering. I'm not sure how we could have dealt with that, either. It was something fundamentally alien to us.

  17. February 08, 2019Chuck said...

    I think the view is that the political leadership, not the military leadership, of the South Vietnamese was abysmal. In my opinion one of the things that really hamstrung the ability of the South to form a functional government was the widespread use of assassination by both sides. Anyone with leadership qualities was a target for one side or the other, leaving very little to work with, and favoring politicians of indeterminate loyalty and no particular vision for the country.

  18. February 08, 2019bean said...

    I don't know of any prominent assassinations of South Vietnamese leadership, except for Diem and his brother, which essentially happened after they had already been deposed. But it's not something I've looked into very closely.

  19. February 09, 2019Inky said...

    I don't remember exactly if I have found this site through Naval Gazing or not, but if not, this might be of interest to it's regulars.

  20. February 09, 2019bean said...

    I don't remember seeing it before, but it's definitely interesting. Thanks.

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